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Business Etiquette: Touching in the Workplace

02/19/2015 11:38 am ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015

There are distinct boundaries when it comes to touching in the workplace. The unfortunate blaze of controversy regarding Vice President Joe Biden's hands-on approach to Defense Secretary Ash Carter's wife during his swearing-in ceremony raised more than a few eyebrows.

The etiquette rules concerning touch in the workplace are sensibly clear: the only conventional business touch is a handshake. Unless you are in an industry that requires physical contact, such as a massage therapist, doctor, hair stylist, dentist or similar profession, it's a safe choice to keep your hands to yourself.

And now on to the nuances of personal touch, and, of course, the exceptions.

  1. Hugs are "iffy". Often a longtime client or contact will become a good friend. Greeting each other with a hug might seem acceptable given your established, close relationship. When a professional relationship has evolved to a personal side, and the feeling is mutually relaxed, a friendly hug may be a welcome greeting. It's always a judgment call, however, and it could prove to be ill-fated if your instincts are incorrect.
  2. Be mindful of others' touch tolerance. Some people are natural huggers, and others have a strict hands-off policy under any circumstances. If someone flinches when you clap them on the back, it's a fairly good sign anything more than a handshake would be an invasion of their personal space. Use the flinch as a reminder to respect other people's boundaries.
  3. Bosses and supervisors should be particularly mindful. In many cases, a pat on the shoulder from the boss can feel patronizing. In addition, there are too many opportunities for sending mixed messages. What may be appreciated by one employee as an authentic gesture to connect may be rebuked by another. The golden rule when it comes to touching an employee is "hands off."
  4. Consider the situation. Coworkers in a business setting wouldn't normally touch each other, but securing a massive contract may incite an overzealous high five or a group hug. Another reason someone might physically reach out at work is to offer condolences on the loss of a loved one.
  5. When in doubt, keep your hands to yourself. In general, you can't go wrong by limiting your physical interaction to a firm handshake. There are plenty of safe alternatives to making a warm connection: a genuine smile, verbal praise, putting a compliment in writing or announcing a successful achievement at the next staff meeting. Any of these substitutes will keep you out of hot water at the office.

For more of Diane's business etiquette tips, visit her blog, connect with her here on The Huffington Post, follow her on Pinterest and Instagram and "like" The Protocol School of Texas on Facebook.